Jeff Gluck, NASCAR Scene
Johnson-Knaus magic puts lights out on Chase
Carl Edwards’ smile was radiant in the twilight of victory lane, the product of an ebullient driver whose win at Atlanta surely proved that the 2008 Chase For The Sprint Cup was anything but over.
Blissfully ignorant of any reason not to be overjoyed, Edwards spoke enthusiastically, brightly. This was a happy day, with not a cloud in sight.
Then, a TV reporter asked Edwards what he thought about the fellow who finished second. Suddenly, Edwards’ smile was darkened in the growing shadows.
“Who finished second?” Edwards asked.
He turned his neck and peered over his shoulder at the scoring pylon. The setting sun cast a spotlight on the race results, the soft light revealing a harsh truth.
There, just below Edwards’ No. 99, was the last number he wanted to see.
It was Jimmie Johnson’s No. 48.
“Are you kidding me?” Edwards said, his smile suddenly gone. “... Man. Jimmie is magic.”
Lights out. The 2008 Chase is over.
Despite not winning at Atlanta, the No. 48 team’s performance there will be remembered as the defining race in securing Johnson’s third straight Cup title.
Every champion has their one shining moment, and this was Johnson’s.
It certainly didn’t seem that way 89 laps into the race, when Johnson made a rare mistake and was caught speeding on pit road under the green flag. By the time he served his penalty, he was in 30th place and had been lapped by the race leaders.
In that moment, his competition suddenly felt alive. There was hope. Johnson was not invincible after all. His day was ruined.
And then it wasn’t.
Jimmie the Amazing and his assistant, crew chief Chad Knaus, made their challenge look easy. Whether it was sleight of hand or simply terrific strategy and perfect execution, Johnson was in position to claim the free pass when a caution flag flew on lap 132.
He was on the lead lap again, back in the race.
“That’s what makes champions,” Knaus said on the team radio. “[Stuff] like this.”
Everyone who has followed NASCAR in the last few years has seen Johnson and Knaus orchestrate comebacks again and again. It’s like a well-performed card trick; you know what’s coming, but your jaw still drops when you see the result.
How ... did ... they ... do ... that?
The best part of their act wasn’t even getting back on the lead lap. It was the finale.
Before a restart on which there would be just eight laps remaining, Johnson was stuck in eighth place with worn tires.
Knaus asked Johnson what he thought about pitting to take fresh tires.
“I’m just afraid to get in harm’s way,” Johnson told Knaus, then asked, “What are you thinking?”
“Single-file restart, and at least half of the [lead-lap cars] will pit,” Knaus said. “At least half.”
Not quite. Only seven of the 17 cars pitted, but Johnson was the first car out of the pits with four fresh tires. He restarted 11th.
That left him with 12 miles to pass as many of the world’s best drivers as he could before time ran out. No problem.
“Go get ’em, dude,” Knaus said.
Within two laps, Johnson had smoked four cars. Two laps after that, he had stormed to fourth place. He zoomed into third and, in the final turn of the last lap, squeezed by Denny Hamlin into second – just as Hamlin dangerously wiggled and threatened to take both cars out.
Of course, the would-be accident didn’t happen. That kind of thing never happens to Johnson.
“Nice, nice, nice!” Knaus yelled on the radio as his driver finished.
“You’re brilliant!” Johnson responded. “You are brilliant!”
For some, consistency is a bad word in racing. It drips with the implication that points racing is better than winning, that settling for top-10s is the best way to claim a championship.
But Johnson and Knaus have twisted the word to their own meaning by being consistently excellent.
And in Atlanta, the amazing duo did it again. They were the ones basking in the setting sun, if not a little exhausted for their efforts.
“I feel like I just went 12 rounds with [Mike] Tyson,” Johnson said.
And knocked his lights out.
Busch's behavior in defeat reveals true colors
Under the glare of the bright Chase lights, Kyle Busch melted like a good M&M shouldn’t. One’s true colors often show when faced with adversity, and Busch made no attempt to hide his after suffering through a painful day and a 34th-place finish in the opening race of the Chase.
The disconnected sway bar that ruined his afternoon had nothing to do with Busch, and he deserved none of the blame. And Busch had about two-and-a-half hours to think about what happened, devise a new strategy going forward and calm down from the initial shock and disappointment of falling from first to eighth in points, 74 behind the leaders.
But as he pulled his car into the garage, it was clear Busch had no interest in representing himself as a classy, professional athlete.
With his window net down and helmet already off, he parked at his Joe Gibbs Racing team’s hauler with a scowl that would surely scare any small, candy-eating child.
Team owner Joe Gibbs, who had the magic touch with so many difficult football players during his Hall of Fame coaching career with the Washington Redskins, approached the car and leaned in, no doubt offering some quiet words of wisdom.
Busch didn’t say a word and didn’t even acknowledge Gibbs. With Gibbs’ head still in the car, Busch began climbing from his M&M’s-sponsored vehicle and bolted for the side door of the hauler.
Everyone has their moments, and certainly Busch was entitled to be upset. Many drivers refuse to talk immediately after the race, preferring a minute or two to cool off and compose themselves.
TV reporters and motorsports journalists, many of whom had written glowing pieces about Busch throughout his amazing eight-win season, waited outside to speak with the 23-year-old. Surely, being the story of the season and used to speaking with reporters after almost every race, Busch figured to emerge at some point, answer a few questions and head for home.
But the only person to emerge was a grim-faced public relations representative, who gave the signal that Busch had split.
This was hard to believe, considering the limited escape route, but he was quite determined not to talk. In his efforts to escape answering even a single question, Busch slipped out a side door, climbed over part of an adjacent hauler and jumped on a waiting golf cart acting as his getaway vehicle.
Gibbs and crew chief Steve Addington were among those left behind to answer the questions.
“That one really hurt, but sometimes in racing that can happen to us,” Gibbs said.
“We’re not giving up at all – we’ll just pick up and go on,” Addington said.
It’s mystifying why Busch couldn’t have stayed around to share those thoughts himself, but he learned from watching the poor examples of Tony Stewart and Kevin Harvick over the years. Apparently, Busch thinks he can and should act the same way.
Jimmy Makar, Gibbs’ senior vice president, said the disconnected front sway bar was “probably human error,” adding the part in question was found on the track after the race – unbroken.
“I would think the nuts were just not tight and it backed itself off vibrating during the race,” he said.
That has to be maddeningly frustrating to Busch and his team, of course. But does that provide an excuse for Busch to act like someone half his age?
This is racing, when everything isn’t always going to go how drivers expect or want. But in the toughest times, there are adults in the garage who always seem to man up and answer at least a few questions, no matter how frustrated they may be.
Jeff Gordon. Jimmie Johnson. Carl Edwards. Jeff Burton. Greg Biffle. Denny Hamlin. Matt Kenseth.
There’s something to be said for facing the music when it sounds out of tune.
“He’s got to be frustrated,” said team owner Rick Hendrick, who used to employ the temperamental young driver. “But I’m telling you, you have got to learn how to lose. Learning how to win is easy when you win. Learning how to lose is the hard part of this deal.”
Busch is a great driver but a terrible loser. His behavior after the race raises a valid question: Is this a person who is ready to represent the sport as its champion?
If actions speak louder than words – and Busch didn’t leave us with any of the latter – then the answer is obvious.
One family discovers what it's like to be a new fan
It’s not polite to tell you how old my mom is, but she recently turned a number that was much larger than she preferred. Unfortunately for her, the number was big and round. Such numbers are still worth celebrating, though, which is why my Colorado-based family converged on Dover, Del., for the Sept. 21 Sprint Cup race.
My family members are not race fans, but the only way to get together for Mom’s birthday was for them to come to me. And almost every week, thanks to this job, I’m at the race track.
So there was my mom, dad and sister at the Monster Mile, standing in the garage amidst the chaos and crowds of race morning. It was unfamiliar territory, but they seemed to have an open mind.
Being so immersed in the sport, it’s hard for me to remember or understand what new fans are seeing. I wanted to conduct a proper garage tour, but I didn’t know what to discuss.
I was dealing with three different levels of knowledge:
• My dad started watching NASCAR on TV when I began covering the sport five years ago. Dover was his third Cup race.
• My mom watches the races on TV occasionally due to her son’s interest but had never been to a race.
• My sister had never seen a race on TV or in person.
Best to stick to the basics, I thought.
We meandered through the mobs of race fans, most of whom had already made commitments to their favorite drivers. My family’s allegiance was still mostly up for grabs.
My dad had decided to root for Mark Martin because he likes the “old guys.” My sister picked Jeff Gordon because of his connection to the San Francisco Bay Area, where we grew up, though she kept her eye out for a cute driver that could steal her cheers. And my mom had settled on Jimmie Johnson – not because she knew much about him, but because his number reflected her birth year (sorry, Mom, I gave it away).
I had forgotten how the reasons for liking certain drivers and hating others could be so simple, especially for new fans.
As we walked through the garage, I explained the significance of the haulers and pointed out the cars. My mom walked right up to the No. 48 car and had her picture taken. And when it was time for the drivers’ meeting, I positioned my family near the entrance and whispered in my mom’s ear who was who as they marched by.
The oft-promoted accessibility is something I’ve come to take for granted, but it’s a major appeal to new fans.
I bought them three tickets in the second-to-last row of the grandstands between turns 1 and 2. They weren’t able to see pit stops or driver introductions, but they had a spectacular view of the track. And when my mom cheered for Johnson before the race, she didn’t get heckled or booed as I had warned she might; the only backlash was some rolled eyes from a couple of Matt Kenseth fans, she reported.
They stayed from flag to flag, using a Sprint FanView to help follow the race. Rumor has it that my dad wasn’t too proficient in operating the scanner part of the FanView, so they mostly kept it tuned to MRN.
The race featured one of the best finishes of the season, a three-way battle between Kenseth, Carl Edwards and eventual winner Greg Biffle. It grabbed the attention of many longtime fans, of course, but it also thrilled my family of NASCAR neophytes.
“What a sport!” my mom texted from the stands.
Even with all the atmosphere, the access to the cars and drivers and prerace entertainment, what did my family want to talk about after it was over?
The racing itself.
My mom recounted how all the fans jumped to their feet while the Roush Fenway Racing teammates raced for the lead, lap after lap.
A boring race this was not.
My sister, taking all of this in for the first time, inquired about the “fresh air” they kept mentioning on MRN and why that affected the cars so much. I had a puzzled look on my face until I realized she was talking about clean air that helps the leaders stay out front.
She also wanted to know why some cars are allowed to get a “free lap.” I explained the lucky-dog rule, but it didn’t make very much sense.
Standing outside the track a few hours after the race (I encouraged them to wait out the traffic), my mom proclaimed she was officially a NASCAR fan. There’s nothing like seeing it live, as NASCAR often reminds us.
“I used to watch it because you liked it,” she said. “But now I’ll watch it because it’s really exciting.”